Tag Archives: Inga Clendinnen

Ross Gibson’s 26 Views and my 14 lines (Sonnet #9)

Ross Gibson, 26 Views of the Starburst World (UWAP 2012)

My formal education left me with a lingering sense that Australian history was boring: a drab procession of convicts, explorers, squatters, gold miners, politicians arguing about free trade and train gauges, soldiers, shearers, horsemen – and somewhere on the sidelines an undifferentiated, disappearing mass labelled ‘Aborigines’.

I began to see things differently in the theatre in the early 70s, with the irreverence and vigour of plays like The Legend of King O’Malley (Ellis and Boddy 1970), The Duke of Edinburgh Assassinated (Ellis and Hall 1972) and Flash Jim Vaux (Blair, Clark and Colman 1972), and exhumed splendours like Edward Geoghegan’s The Currency Lass (from the 1840s, published by Currency Press in 1976) and Katharine Susannah Prichard’s Brumby Innes (written 1927, first professional production at the Pram Factory in 1972). Skipping forward a couple of decades, Inga Clendinnen’s brilliant Dancing with Strangers (the link is to Will Owen’s review), by taking a probing scalpel to journal accounts of the first years of the settlement at Port Jackson, made me realise what an extraordinary moment that was, whose meaning is still a long way from being fully understood.

Ross Gibson’s 26 Views of the Starburst World is even more of a revelation, and has an even tighter focus than Dancing with Strangers. It looks at two notebooks, ninety pages in all, in which William Dawes recorded his notes on the ‘language of N. S. Wales, in the neighbourhood of Sydney (Native and English)’ in the late 18th century.

William Dawes was a marine lieutenant and astronomer who lived in Sydney from 1788 to 1791, years in which the world of the Eora changed catastrophically and in which that of the British invader–settlers likewise was transformed. These two notebooks were rediscovered in London in 1972. In compiling them, Dawes drew on his relationships with a small group of Eora, including most memorably a young woman named Patyegarang, who visited him at his tiny observatory on the edge of the settlement. They record snippets of conversation, and give sometimes enigmatic glimpses of tiny interactions.

Gibson describes the notebooks as ‘fragmented, unfinished, heuristic’, with ‘a prismatic quality’. And his book might be described in similar terms: it quotes, questions, analyses, peers closely at faint marks, speculates, extrapolates. It comes at the notebooks from, well, at least 26 angles: there’s biography, linguistics , psychology, anthropology, the history of colonisation, the history of science (1788 was a time of a high romantic approach to scientific enquiry in England), communication theory, the politics of Rugby League in 21st century Sydney. Apart from Dawes’ contemporaries Watkin Tench, David Collins and Arthur Phillip, it quotes Wordsworth, Emerson, Walden, Mallarmé, James Agee, Kenneth Slessor, the 2oth century haiku master Seichi, Robert Gray, Barry Hill – all of them pertinently … And sometimes it lets the notebooks speak for themselves. Gibson describes his approach as ’roundabout, relational, a tad restless and unruly’, and in a slightly less alliterative moment as ‘a little like history, a little like poetry, a little maddeningly like a séance’.

Possibly my favourite moment in the book is the facsimile of page 37 of Notebook A, on which there are just four words:

Yánga
________Present
––––________I
___________thou

Gibson gives us a caption – and bear in mind that everywhere else he refrains from speculation about any sexual dimension to the relationship between Dawes and Patyegarang:

‘Yanga’ – a verb that Dawes records but does not translate. Other colonial word lists, not compiled by Dawes, suggest ‘yanga’ means ‘to copulate’.

The School of Oriental and African Studies (London) has put the complete notebooks are online, with transcriptions of their contents, at http://www.williamdawes.org/.

But I’m falling behind on my quota of November sonnets, so here goes:

Sonnet 9: William Dawes and Patyegarang
He lived apart to study stars
and drew dark students to his table –
students and ambassadors
who drank his tea so he was able
to write their words down, turn their breath
to marks on paper. War and death
were soon to dominate this story
but then there was a kind of glory:
‘Paouwagadyımíŋa,’
she said, ‘You shade me from the sun.’
She said, ‘We’re angry, fear the gun –
Gulara, tyérun gu̇nın.’
The future loomed with genocide:
these marks show some opposed that tide.

Kate vs Inga – it’s still going on

Kate Grenville was interviewed on the most recent Guardian Books Podcast, a good choice of guest as the subject was historical fiction, and her last three books – The Secret River, The Lieutenant and Sarah Thornhill –  have been tales of the early years of the colony of New South Wales.

It must be irritating to Ms Grenville that every time a journalist talks to her about her colonial novels, they raise the matter of the ‘attacks’ on The Secret River by ‘historians’. And that’s what happens in this podcast. Asked about the response to The Secret River, KG says in part:

We all kind of knew that things had happened, but people of my generation were brought up with this illusion that, you know, the reason there were no Aboriginal people left in many parts of Australia was that they all got measles, and had no resistance to it. We all kind of knew that this was wrong and The Secret River gave people a way of starting to think about it, I think. And because it’s fiction, it wasn’t too confronting. With fiction you can always reassure yourself that after all this is just made up. …
A couple of historians, with The Secret River, were cranky that I was writing something that they felt was their territory. You know, this is hard stuff to think about. Here we are as white Australians living incredibly privileged lives and we’re doing it on the back of 2oo years of oppression and misery and murder, basically. To actually look that fact in the face is extremely confronting, very difficult. So I think when those historians really diverted the debate away from what I’d been writing the books about, which is the massacre and what  the beneficiaries of it do with that knowledge, I think they felt that this was a chance to divert the debate into something more comfortable – which is the debate of is it history, is it fiction, how far should novelists go in writing historical fiction.

OK, the only reason for a novelist to appear on the Guardian podcast is to promote her own work, and the dismissal of any number of other novelists who have tackled the subject (Thea Astley comes immediately to mind, and surely there are others) can be forgiven as loose talk. It’s absolutely true that the subject of ‘massacre and what  the beneficiaries of it do with that knowledge’ is difficult and confronting and, I would add, of high priority (though it’s an open question whether the book actually goes to the question of the beneficiaries). It may even be that the criticisms of The Secret River had the effect of diverting attention from that question. But really ….

The only historian I’ve read on this subject is Inga Clendinnen, who made some astringent and, yes, cranky remarks about The Secret River in her Quarterly Essay, Who Owns the Past? But her gist, as I remember it, was that on many points the novel distorts the history – for instance, by moving a key incident from the first years of the colony to a couple of decades later – and in general it lacks any sense of actual engagement with the times she was writing about. Clendinnen herself could hardly be described as ‘heavy duty’ in the sense of inaccessible. And it would be hard to read her writing about the early colony as comfortable.

Evidently Kate Grenville is still smarting from the criticism, but this is fighting dirty. Inga Clendinnen is not Keith Windschuttle, yet anyone learning about her criticisms from this podcast would assume she was near allied.

Judith Beveridge’s Wolf Notes

Judith Beveridge, Wolf Notes (Giramondo 2007, 2010)

On a Sydney Writers’ Festival panel some years ago Inga Clendinnen indulged in a flight of metaphor, saying that the writer of a personal essay takes the reader by the hand and says, ‘Come walk with me,’ while a novelist invites a reader to play Catch-me-if-you-can. The novelist who chaired the panel commented afterwards that though he adores Inga (as who doesn’t?), he was a little offended. At the risk of offending poets everywhere then, I’d like to suggest that the author of a book of poems is saying, ‘Come in, make yourself at home, stay a while.’

That is to say, I have to live with a book of poetry for a while before I feel that I’ve actually read it. At this stage of my relationship with Wolf Notes, I can say confidently that there’s lots of good stuff in it, but I’d have read it again, dip into it, and do some digging before I could say anything useful about it. (I’ve just read Martin Duwell’s latest entry on his Australian Poetry Review site, and I tell you I’m in awe.)

For an example of why I’m not competent to say much about this book, I have no idea why the first of its three parts is called ‘Peregrine’: it begins with character sketches of people you might see in an Asian city or countryside – a saffron picker, a pedlar, a bone artisan –, and goes on to a miscellany of other subjects – a contemplative walk beside a lake, a suicide, a boy killed by leeches, a mother wrestling with inexplicable sadness, a crew of three on a fishing boat, and so on. Does the title suggest that the poet is a pilgrim? A falcon? I draw a blank.

In a different way, it seems that to appreciate the middle section, ‘Between the Palace and the Bodhi Tree’, described in an introductory note as ‘an imaginative depiction of the time Siddhattha spent wandering in the forests and towns before achieving enlightenment’, I would have to learn something about Buddhism and the story of the Buddha. I found many of these poems beautiful, especially the ones filled with observations of the natural world, but I have very little clue where they stand in relation to Buddhism: are they devout meditations or relatively unengaged textual games? I think the former, but don’t know enough to be sure. (The third section, ‘Signatures’, presents no general problem – it’s a number of monologues, easily understood to be their speakers’ signatures.)

So far I’m just a visitor to this book, then, but it offers enough observation, drama, wit and seriousness to make me want to spend more time here. One pleasurable thing is the way the moon appears again and again, especially in the middle section. If I quote a number of its appearances, you’ll get some idea of Judith Beveridge’s voice, at least when she’s channelling Siddhattha:

From ‘The Rains’:

————— I look at the moon
primed and narrow as the sting
of a scorpion’s tail.

From ‘Quarry’:

I watched the moon gather shine
like limestone in a mason’s hands.

From ‘Circles’, after describing vultures in picking at a dead ox:

I saw the moon, a desecrated bone
upon which those birds
might drip some blood.

From ‘New Season’:

——————————— the sky’s
depth, where the moon pares itself down
into the smile of an obedient wife

From ‘The Krait’:

I was scared. I didn’t notice the moon,
a fang poised above my slightest act.

From ‘Doubt’:

Today I hear only wind smuggled in.
The moon bears down with its gift-less smile.

From ‘Death‘ (possibly the most immediately accessible poem in the book, it’s the fourth or fifth one down at that link):

Even the moon can’t keep itself clean:
soap soiled by a dung-collector’s hands.

From ‘Ficus Religiosa’:

I vow with all beings
to sit until the moon, a bowl,
is almed only by the Good.

Same moon, same poet, different poems, different feel. I won’t be shaking this book’s dust from the soles of my sandals for a while yet.

December niece news

Since I seem to be posting regular notes about nieces, perhaps I should explain: I’ve got eight of them, and five of the eight have lived, or at least stayed for a while, with us over the years. Every one of them is a source of great joy. A number of them are meeting with a degree of success as writers and artists, and I’m shamelessly putting my blog to work as part of their publicity machines. (We have seven nephews, sources of no less joy, who have so far been more or less avoiding the need for publicity.)

Paula Shaw, whose memoir Seven Seasons at Aurukun received quite a bit of attention earlier in the year, and not just from me, popped up again in Inga Clendinnen’s article in the December Australian Literary Review. Although the article itself has attracted aspersions from Guy Rundle in Crikey, the reference to Seven Seasons as ‘a brave and honest book’ stands uncontested. Thanks to my avuncular Google Alert, I also came across a number of reviews by teachers – on the publisher’s web site, and a review by an Aboriginal reader who has the most negative response I’ve seen so far, identifying a ‘heart of darkness vibe’, but says all the same that it would be a ‘good read for anybody interested in contemporary life in an Aboriginal community in Australia’.

Meanwhile, Paula’s sister Edwina Shaw has been gracing the pages of the Griffith Review for a couple of years now – and grace is the right word for it, even though her stories deal with dark themes set in Joh-era Brisbane. She has a story in the current issue, along with Frank Moorhouse, Louis Nowra and other luminaries. She also has a story, about different youth altogether, in the current (Winter) edition of the Asia Literary Review, sharing the contents list with among others Henning Mankell. (I was putting off posting this until the Asia Literary Review web site included details on the Winter issue, but as it’s now 5 January my title will be appallingly out of date if I postpone any longer, so here it is with what may be the right cover.)

Update: Chris Wood, the editor, has told us in a comment that it is the right cover.

Another update: The Winter issue is now up on the Asia Literary Review web site. I’ve fixed the link, and added one to Edwina’s story, ‘Broken’.